Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Know power of your voice, use it

I’ve written enough columns during my two-year tenure to know a few cardinal rules: Don’t make mistakes, don’t write about Israel and try to focus on local issues.

As The Badger Herald comment board will show, I’ve learned some of these lessons harder than others, Israel the exception — I might be the first columnist to have never written on it — but I’m stronger for it now.

Making a factual mistake is one thing you only have to do once to know you’ll never do it again, but local issues took some time. Learning this lesson was something I got through practice, and effects.


When I started writing here, my columns were almost like media critiques. I chastised sensationalism and issues du jour for their shortsightedness and the harm they cause.  Somewhere along the way I found my spot, finding oddball issues that somehow spoke to fundamental concepts of liberty and justice.

I’ve tried writing these columns to be balanced and logically appealing to avoid being dismissed quickly because of some petty partisan disagreement. I’ve genuinely struggled coming to most of my conclusions, meaning that most are to be read as narrowly as possible.

This certainly gets me a wide variety of feedback. As one who, if forced to decide, would peg myself as a “liberal” in the most general sense of the word, I’ve had an interesting experience in this regard.

I’m not just privy to hate mail and hate comments from campus conservatives; I get it from liberals as well, leading to some odd “bedfellows” I just didn’t expect. 

When I started writing my follow-up “Think Campaign” column this year, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I was scared to call Dean of Students Lori Berquam to see how this program was being used today for fear that it was an astonishing success.

The results, however, were surprising. She said the program was nearly dead and attributed its demise, in part, to a scathing opinion piece written the year before.

So I wrote, and the column’s reception took me by even more surprise. 

A few days later, a friend of mine e-mailed me to tell me of my newest odd pair: I had been featured positively by Charlie Sykes in his column and by Rush Limbaugh on the air. 

Their take: Mr. Sykes appropriately penned that I “wrote the epitaph for the program” while Mr. Limbaugh’s rant included the Clintons, which — don’t worry — sounds just as random to me now as it did then.

Certainly, this was not the kind of press I had expected to garner when I signed on to the Herald. But the lesson wasn’t that writing controversial columns gets you in the press, whether you like it or not, it was that local issues are just as important as national ones — and you can actually do something about them.

In an era in which newspapers and news stations are slowly winding down their coverage of Madison politics in favor of all things Washington, it’s hard to get people energized about what’s happening in their own backyard, perhaps in large part because they don’t even know what is happening. Unfortunately, this almost-delusional focus on Washington allows local officials to pull some crazy tricks while you’re giving them a blind eye.

While something like a bias reporting mechanism might not directly affect you, when Madison officials determine how they will reduce crime or even fix potholes, your life or wallet is being directly affected.

But the good news is that you actually can change something on this level, where you definitely will not on the national level. If a lowly newspaper columnist can make an impact with a column, imagine what you could do — you can leave your imprint on a city, an era and a campus.

As much as I am dismayed by the fact that students don’t seem to care about anything that doesn’t involve their ability to drink alcohol, at least their focus is in the right direction. They’re actually focused on something that they can do something about.  Their input is valuable, interesting and desired — but in Washington, you’re a face in the crowd.

Groups that focus on the war, national tax policies and foreign policy issues that don’t even involve the United States have their place in a very limited sense, but you’re not going to have the impact that you could if you just acted locally.

And why? Because, in the end, it’s much easier for the president to ignore your protest in Madison than it is for the mayor to ignore your protest in front of city hall. Translation: “The Good Fight” is only good if you can actually do something about it.

So if there’s any wisdom I have to impart after being in the crosshairs of commentators for two years, it is simply this: Know your niche and use it.

It is, after all, yours.

Robert Phansalkar ([email protected]) is a first-year law student. This is his 42nd and final column for The Badger Herald.

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